‘We work hard to keep people engaged, because if we don’t do a good job of it, people are going to connect with each other in different ways’

Feb 12, 2018

In West Point, NE, the newspaper keeps its community connected

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Out in the Midwest, there is a West Point that does not prepare young people for the military. This “other” West Point is a small town in eastern Nebraska. It sits on the banks of the Elkhorn River, is home to about 3,300 residents and is the seat of Cuming County.
A farming community, this West Point depends on agriculture to drive its economy, and many of the area jobs draw from the land. Cattle, corn and soybeans are the foundation of the county’s livelihood, propped up with businesses like farm equipment sales and services, seed and fertilizer suppliers and industry, including West Point Dairy Products, a conglomerate that supplies much of the U.S. with butter and other dairy products.
More than 25 years ago, Tom Kelly and his wife, Michelle, who once owned the Cedar County News in Hardington, NE, were driving across the state on their way to a Nebraska Press Association conference, and they passed through West Point.
“The town caught my eye, and I could see it was a nice community,” he said in a recent phone interview. He got to know Dick and Gwen Lindberg, the couple who owned the West Point News at the time, and told them if they ever wanted to sell the paper, he would be interested in buying it.
Two years later, the Lindbergs, who had vowed to always keep The West Point News locally owned, were ready to retire, so Kelly sold the Cedar County News and took over the operations in West Point in 1992. Years later, in 2007, Kelly bought the Wisner News, a small weekly about 18 miles away.
“The Wisner paper came up for sale,” Kelly said. “Tom and Gladys Hickman owned the paper, but Ted got sick and they needed to sell it, so he called me. I wasn’t in the market for another newspaper, but it made sense to buy it, and it has been a good fit.”
Kelly, a lifelong Nebraskan, comes from a newspaper family. His grandfather owned the Lexington (NE) Clipper, and Kelly’s father worked for him after marrying into this newspaper family. Kelly has great memories of watching the presses run. Over time, he succumbed to the gravitational pull, and after graduating from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree, he started his career as a sports writer for the Alliance (NE) Times-Herald. His newspaper career was briefly interrupted for two years when he tried his hand in public relations for Farm Credit in Omaha, but he returned to his roots when he asked his father to co-sign a note to help him buy the Cedar County News, which he owned for 12 years before buying the West Point News.
Today, West Point’s circulation is 2,500 and Wisner’s is 1,500. The newspapers are distributed through the mail and in news racks at grocery stores and convenience stores. Kelly also owns a shopper that circulates widely throughout the entire county.
“When Dick and Gwen owned the newspaper, they were focused on the community, and now I am, too,” Kelly said. “Publishing community news is a major expense, but we still maintain a large news hole because we feel it is important. The success of our shopper makes it possible for us to keep it this way and for our newspapers to remain strong.”
Advertising is remarkably robust for a small-town economy, primarily driven to the shopper, Kelly says. It stays full of grocery store inserts, and benefits from car dealership ads from local and regional dealers as well as plenty of real estate advertising. The local hardware store, hospital and banks are loyal customers, too.
“Nebraska has a low unemployment rate, so our shopper usually has a strong help wanted section, running about 3½ pages, even on a light week,” he said.
According to reports posted by the Nebraska Department of Labor, the unemployment rate as of last December was 2.7 percent.
Although Kelly lives about 67 miles away in Omaha to be close to his family, he remains bullish on keeping the newspaper connected to his community. He sees this as both his biggest challenge and his greatest reward.
Using a strong social media presence with 3,336 followers, the West Point News fosters two-way conversations and stays in direct contact with readers.
“We work hard to keep people engaged, because if we don’t do a good job of it, people are going to connect with each other in different ways,” he said. “I see social media as a positive thing. It helps us know what people are interested in. We know what our community is talking about, and we get a lot of leads.”
The newspaper’s Facebook page also posts teasers for online stories, and although the website does not have a paywall, readers are limited to the amount of news they can read for free. They may subscribe to the print newspaper and get the web version as a value added, or they can subscribe to the website only.
Other challenges Kelly faces are not much different from those faced in other small communities.
“Cost is a challenge,” he said. “Postal is a significant cost, as is newsprint. Nothing gets cheaper. I hate to be constantly asking for rate increases, but we have to pay the bills.”
But the rewards for Kelly lie in his belief he and his staff are doing something positive for the communities they serve. He also feels rewarded by the fact that his employees have longevity; with so many combined years of service, he couldn’t add them all up in his head.
“I try to give my employees free rein,” he said. “It is rewarding for me when they are empowered, and they come up with ideas and solutions to problems. They know what their jobs are. They do a great job and don’t need a micromanager. You can’t teach dedication and enthusiasm.”
Kelly loves to get feedback of any kind, and believes he can learn from negative comments as well as positive ones. He doesn’t even really mind the moniker “fake news,” and believes his readers are smart enough to know the difference.
“Hopefully they don’t think of us as fake news,” he adds.
When Kelly started out as a newspaper owner and publisher in Hardington, his wife, Michelle, held darkroom duty. But now, she isn’t so much a newspaper employee as a den mother of sorts, planning social events for the staff, helping celebrate birthdays.
“She’s always looking out for the staff and serves as a great sounding board for me,” he said. “She has good ideas and can see through the clutter to help me solve problems.”
Kelly is willing to peer into the future, but admits it is tough.
“I don’t know. I believe there will always be an information hub and news providers in society, especially in small communities,” he said. “I don’t know how news will be delivered in the future—electronically or on paper—but as long as there are communities, there will be news, and as long as newspapers do a good job of bringing the news to the people, they will continue to exist.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC, contact her at terisaylor@hotmail.com.


Publisher: Tom Kelly
Newspaper Name: West Point News & Wisner News, NE
How long have you owned the West Point News and Wisner News? I bought West Point in 1992 and Wisner in 2007.
What are their circulations? West Point is 2,500 and Wisner is 1,500.
What is its publication schedule? The newspapers and the Elkhorn Valley Shopper are published on Wednesdays.
How many people work for you? We have two full-time staff and four part-time employees at Wisner, and at West Point, we have 15 full-time and eight or nine part-time employees.
What is the most rewarding aspect of managing and editing a weekly newspaper? The feeling of doing something positive for the community and empowering staff to be the best they can be.
What are your biggest challenges? Making sure the community stays connected, and keeping costs under control—particularly postal and production costs.
How do you view the paper’s role in the community it serves? To keep the community connected and engaged and creating a two-way conversation through social media.
Website: www.wpnews.com
Email: publisher@wpnews.com